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On Weather and History

Fox’s Jesse Waters dismissedclimate change in a not-so-nuanced manner: “It gets hot. It gets cold.”

Yet weather matters, and it matters even to historians. I offer an illustration.

I have for many years been perplexed by the somberness of Jefferson’s thinking beginning with the spring of 1816 and continuing throughout the winter of the following year. Consider what I write in Thomas Jefferson: Uncovering His Unique Philosophical Vision:

In a letter to Abigail Adams dated January 11, 1817, Jefferson is uncharacteristically chapfallen. “Nothing proves more than this that the being who resides over the world is essentially benevolent, stealing from us, one by one, the faculties of enjoyment, searing our sensibilities, leading us, like the horse in his mill, round and round the same beaten path.” With each turn, the senses become satiated and fatigued by “leaden iteration” and the wish to live wanes. With the turn of a new year, Jefferson, it seems, has begun his crepuscular years. He waxes Stoical: “Perhaps however one of the elements of future felicity is to be a constant and unimpassioned view of what is passing here. … Mercier has given us a vision of the year 2440, but prophecy is one thing, history another. On the whole however, perhaps it is wise and well to be contented with the good things which the master of the feast places before us, and to be thankful for what we have, rather than thoughtful about what we have not.” Resignation seems an irregular, uncustomary sentiment for Jefferson—at least in his letters. Nine months earlier, he had told John Adams a story singularly different and seemingly anti-stoical. “My temperament is sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. … The perfection of the moral character is, not in a Stoical apathy, so hypocritically vaunted, and so untruly too, because impossible, but in a just equilibrium of all the passions.”

Why is there such a quick antipodal shift in perspective? The reason, I suspect—and here I am being slightly tongue-in-cheek—is because of a philosophical hangover of sorts.

Doubtless prompted by global and local events—America survived a Federalist threat of secession in 1814, and the War of 1812 for all intents and purposes ended with a remarkable victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815—the year 1816 was an especially philosophical year for Jefferson. His letters reflect a large amount of somber contemplation on contentious issues—foremost among them is the issue of republican government. In no other year does he reflect on the nature of republican government with such optimism and verve in letters. He is essaying to decipher the nature of true republicanism.

The problem was this: Jefferson, a relatively serious person, was especially serious in 1816—so much so that I groped for an explanation. I solaced myself with the notion of a “philosophical hangover”—a strange choice of metaphor given that Jefferson was not much of a tippler—and that was tantamount to saying that I had no answer. Jefferson’s serious turn and his concentrated effort on finding a perfect definition of republicanism in 1816 has always been a bugbear.

I found a possible answer while reading on the history of Lynchburg, Virginia. One of the earliest “biographers,” W. Asbury Christian, wrote of a gross weatheranomaly in the summer of 1816.

The … year, 1816, was a year of great dearth. The beginning was promising, but the ending was gloomy. It was known by many as the “year without a summer.” April was a month of storms, and in May vegetation that had budded was frozen. There was frost and snow in June; in July and August ice formed in exposed places, and September and October seemed to have taken the place of December. In consequence of this the crops all failed, and hard times followed.

The anomalous weather was not just endemic to Lynchburg. It was a global phenomenon. The Northern hemisphere suffered in numerous places snow in June and frost in July and August. The weather was cold and rainy, and there was to be an ever-present thick, dusty fog. The coldness and lack of sunshine caused massive crop failures over the globe. Food, thus, became scarce, and those who did successful grow food had to worry about theft. Even travel by horse became more expensive, as oats, the primary food for horses, too climbed in price.

There was across the globe a general panic. Many thought it was Armageddon, but the summer-less year was the result of a volcanic eruption. On April 5, 1815, Mount Tambora began to rumble and erupted over a four-month period. The ash and aerosols from the eruption blotted out the sun the following year. The average global temperature dropped three degrees Celsius. During that bleak summer, Mary Shelly wrote Frankensteinand Lord Byron wrote Darkness.

Byron’s poem begins:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,

And men forgot their passions in the dread

Of this their desolation; and all hearts

Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light.

Byron’s poem ends:

The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still, 

And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;

Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,

And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d

They slept on the abyss without a surge—

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;

The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

And so, Thomas Jefferson too had a Byronic turn of mind in 1816. During that time, he turned to tackling one of the most vexing philosophical problems with which he had to grapple—expiscation of the nature of republicanism—and he did so in lengthy, somber letters to friends such as P.S. Dupont de Nemours (Apr. 24), John Taylor (May 28), and Samuel Kercheval (July 12). Examination of those letters reveals, first, maturation of his thoughts on republicanism, consistent with his earlier, inchoate views on the subject in works such as Summary View of the Rights of British American (1774), Declaration of Independence (1776), and his First Inaugural Address (1801), and second, a consistent political philosophy that is both rich and textured.

This episode shows plainly what serious historical scholars already know. Historical perplexities are often solved unexpectedly, inadvertently. It is often the case that one perplexity is solvedwhile one is examining another perplexity.

Moreover, it illustrates plainly the complexity of a historian’s job. It is not just a matter of studying persons or events within a particular era and culture, one must, as one particular Hippocratic physician—the author of the medical treatise Airs, Waters, and Places—stated millennia ago, breath their air, drink their water, and live in their places. Weather is not just something that happens while other things are happening. Weather often significantly affects history.